Monday, December 10, 2018

History Lessons: A Memoir of Growing Up in an American Communist Family by Dan Lynn Watt

History Lessons: A Memoir of Growing Up in an American Communist Family
by Dan Lynn Watt
349 pages; Xlibris, 2017
ISBN 978-1-5434-29879

Reviewed by David P. Miller

In History Lessons, Dan Lynn Watt has given us an engaging memoir, weaving his family narrative with some of the great historic events of the United States during the 20th century. Although he claims early on that he is “not a historian” (p. xii), this work illuminates history at the grand level, rooted in intimate individual stories. Informed by years of interviews and archival research, backed by fifteen pages of references, this is scholarship fluently melded with autobiography.

The book’s subtitle immediately lets us know what the stakes are. Watt’s father, George Watt (born Israel Kwatt), fought with the International Brigades against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. In World War II, he again fought fascism in the US Army Air Corps. In both cases, he escaped after being caught behind enemy lines. During the entire time, and for long afterwards, George and Margie (Dan’s stepmother) were dedicated members of the Communist Party. For them, there was no inherent contradiction among these commitments, even if the United States government was at first hesitant to allow Spanish Civil War veterans to serve, labeling them “premature anti-fascists” (p. 8). With the rise of McCarthyism, threatened with prison, George went underground for three years, almost entirely out of contact with his family. Dan and his brother Stevie had no idea what had happened to him. It was 1990 before father and son had an open conversation about the underground years.

This memoir explores the deep family background and rippling ramifications of these and other connections with historic milestones. Dan Watt also writes about his formative contacts with figures such as Paul Robeson, whose double 78-rpm album, Ballad for Americans was inspiring to the young boy and was “one of [his] parents’ proudest possessions” (p. 28). Years later, in May 1956, he chanced to witness Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., preaching at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. This riveting experience stimulated what became Watt’s deep commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. Always in the background are this nation’s sustained struggles over “Americanness” and the competing – no, opposing – belief systems which stake claim to patriotism and national identity.

Interwoven with these stories are those of private difficulties. Beside the decades of quiet about George’s three-year disappearance is the story of Dan’s birth mother, who died when he was an infant. His father and stepmother never discussed this with him as a child; he learned the story thanks to a violent outburst from his boorish birth grandmother. That event was so alienating it rolled back into family silence. He tells about his famous uncle, A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times, who was both affectionate and distant. “Uncle Abe” rarely spent personal time with his nephew, at least in part because of the Watts’ Communist affiliations. Dan Watt’s own complex relationship with his family’s politics led eventually to his sense of having three lives, a phrase borrowed from the mid-1950s TV show, I Led Three Lives. He writes that when his father was underground, “my social life began to fragment into three distinct groups: my political friends from camp [left-wing oriented summer camps] and family connections who were becoming more and more important in my life; my school friends, bright kids who took advanced classes; and my neighborhood friends with whom I played and talked sports, watched TV, swapped comics and baseball cards” (p. 154). In large part, it seems that he took on this memoir project as a means of more fully understanding, and coming to terms with, a complex, conflicted personal history, now lucidly shared with readers.

We are treated to tales of public events, less frequently told. Among these is the blatant racism deliberately embedded in the founding of Levittown, Pennsylvania, the second town by that name after the better-known Long Island suburb. Although the town was eventually desegregated, that happened only after the expected misery of white terror and violence. One telling detail is the worthless expression of regret by the developer William Levitt, who claimed that while he personally abhorred race prejudice, “I know … [from experience] … that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then ninety to ninety-five percent of our white customers will not buy into this community” (p. 231). Dan Watt also devotes two later chapters to his direct involvement in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Fayette County, Tennessee, “a footnote in most histories of the period” (p. 275) as compared with the Mississippi Freedom Summer that same year. His work in Tennessee deepened his commitment to social justice and challenged him to confront his personal fears.

Throughout, History Lessons is a vivid, compassionate portrait of a family’s deeply-lived American convictions, which threatened their security and even, potentially, their lives. It is also, more broadly, a story of American Communism in the mid-20th century. The belief in the Soviet Union by American Communists during this period, and their credulity regarding Stalin, is well-known. George Watt came, much later, to doubt the value of his years underground, a commitment which was caused such hardship to himself and his family. All this must be part of the memoir, but as is characteristic of Dan Watt’s approach, his emphasis is on the costs to real, close, and loved human beings. The pain of gradually realizing misguided trust, of being forced to change beliefs, is here, without mockery or easy retrospective cynicism. And importantly, the political/social story doesn’t end there. Watt’s idealism, at first with no clear outlet given his uneasy pull away from Communism, develops its arc as he finds his place in the Civil Rights Movement (where he met his future wife, Molly Lynn Watt) and as a progressive educator in the 1960s and after.

The book is well-produced, nicely bound and attractive to read and hold, further enlivened by a generous selection of personal and archival photographs. History Lessons is a fine, absorbing achievement.

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